You really can’t ask for a more entertaining documentary subject than Rita Moreno. The Oscar (and Grammy and Tony and Emmy) winning actress is a winsome screen presence whose charisma is undeniable. As co-star Justina Machado (One Day at a Time) puts it in the early moments of Mariem Pérez Riera’s Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It, “she’s a diva, girl!”
If that title hadn’t already clued you in, Pérez Riera’s documentary is a portrait of a trailblazing performer that truly aims to shower Moreno with the flowers her long-spanning career deserves. And in that sense, the doc delivers. Anyone who’s loved Moreno will find something to enjoy about the film. Whether you’re looking for a glimpse into the sexist world of studio Hollywood (where an executive outright told her “I’d like to fuck you” at a party: “I giggled, like an idiot. And then, backed away”) or for tidbits on the shooting of West Side Story and The Electric Company, Pérez Riera has you covered.
Every milestone is checked off dutifully throughout. Here’s Rita leaving Puerto Rico. Here’s Rita meeting Louis B. Mayer at the Waldorf-Astoria. Here’s her MGM contract, her bit parts, her Oscar, her Brando years, her TV work, her marriage, Oz then One Day at a Time and so on and so forth.
Though the documentary is framed by following Rita during one day’s shooting of that Netflix-turned-PopTV sitcom, it still very much follows a wholly linear chronology. It’s as efficient as it is expected. Then again, when you have someone like Moreno regaling you with anecdotes and giving you amazing Brando burns (“Have you ever been so obsessed by somebody that you feel as if you can’t breathe without them? That’s how Marlon felt about himself”) you really don’t worry much about how well-worn the film around it may be.
If this all sounds like faint praise it’s because there are moments when the documentary, as enjoyable and entertaining as it may be, offers glimpses of other paths it could’ve taken. Yet by sticking with a tried and true bio-doc structure, all it does is make you wish you could have endless more hours on this icon’s career. For instance, the guiding metaphor of the doc is that of a paper doll (her mother used to call Rita “muñequita”). Yet beyond a few animated interludes, the power of that image and the lasting impact such a self-fashioning metaphor had on young Rita is left mostly untouched.
Similarly, some thorny conversations around representation and the vexing history of problematic roles Moreno played are never as teased apart as they could’ve been. In talking about her part as Tuptim in The King and I, for instance, the gregarious actress merely bemoans how boring the part was. She doesn’t comment much on the racial and cultural politics at play. Because those “dusky maidens” and “island girls” roles (even the problematic aspects of West Side Story) are told in the service of Moreno’s uplifting story, they sometimes feel underdeveloped.
It’s no surprise to find that the more affecting moments in the doc are the ones that focus less on Moreno’s legacy (bolstered by interviews with the likes of Justina Machado, Gloria Estefan and Lin-Manuel Miranda) and more on the woman behind it all. A particularly touching moment finds her discussing her fraught relationship with her husband as she’s putting on makeup. The scene stands out for its simplicity — and its raw vulnerability. As do the moments when she opens up about her abortion, a sexual assault, and the many micro and macro-aggressions she dealt with as a young woman in Hollywood. It’s her candor which shines through.
Those are the moments worth savoring, the ones that scratch beneath the surface and truly capture what made Rosa Dolores Alverío Marcano become Rita Moreno, a girl, who just decided to go for it.
Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It screened as part of Sundance 2021, which runs until February 3.